Saturday, March 05, 2005

RAISING UP DOWNFALL

Wow. I saw the Academy Award nominated German release
Downfall last night. This film lost the "Best Foreign Film" Oscar to Spain's euthanasia propaganda movie The Sea Inside, which, having now seen Downfall strikes me as a double crime.

Relating the incidents surrounding Hitler's death and the fall of Berlin, Downfall has got to be one of the best war movies ever made. Truly, a fascinating movie, that will haunt me for many years. The film doesn't so much tell a story, as record psychological truths about power and war.

A peripheral note...For several years, I have contended that the reason the European film "industry" doesn't compete with Hollywood, is because they can't figure out how to hold the audience's attention. Having seen Downfall I am having to change my thinking. It's not that the Europeans can't make a good movie, it's that most often they just won't. But in the case of Downfall, the German team has definitely made itself a good movie. I think maybe the material is so innately dramatic, that even Europeans couldn't screw it up. Because the facts being recreated in Downfall are so horribly close to home, the filmmakers couldn't bring themselves to make the facts fodder for the usual weird and self-indulgent visuals that generally become the real raison d'etre behind most European projects. The story is an excuse to hang visuals on. In Downfall the elements of the "story" deserve and get more respect from the filmmakers. I don't think there is a single lyrical image in the telling. Which, ironically, I'm going to say is the project's principal "downfall." This just means that the filmmakers are still too close to the facts. We'll have to eventually see one more movie about these events, for the artists to really take a crack at finding meaning in them.

As with The Pianist there is no attempt in Downfall to find a meaning in the terrible Third Reich. The movie is still gazing in horror at the events themselves. Part of the inability to judge the events of WW2, imho, comes down to the fact that we moderns are still clinging to a lot of the doctrines that made the Nazis. For example, we can't really nail the idea of "The Master Race" unless we are willing to nail the pure-materialism of Darwinism. On another level, it's really kind of damned hard to condemn the Nazi doctors with a straight face, when our own doctors are breeding baby humans for research, starving to death the chronically ill, and trying to convince us all that "death with dignity" is a good "final solution." For me, part of the fascination of Downfall is wrapped up in all of these things. How is it that every generation looks behind it cursing and judging, and fails to see itself repeating the same patterns it condemns?

On a craft level, Downfall is beautifuly executed project. The acting is great - and there is something really extra jarring in watching the characters of the Third Reich actually played by German actors. We've seen so many treatments of WW2 made by Hollywood actors with no real stake in the drama. This film features a cast and crew whose grandparents were complicit in the horrors being related. It distracted me from the diegetic illusion, but made the experience of the film that much more intense - which has got to be an ultimate nod in favor of creative control. Because the people here are playing their grandparents, there is a humanity in the German people here, even in the notorious villains of the Third Reich, that makes this movie unique. It makes the movie more sad than horrific.

The cinematography, effects, costuming and production design all heighten the movie's fundamental tone. Which is creepy sadness.

There isn't a conventional three-act story in Downfall, but mainly because the movie doesn't need it. (As I noted above, I'm going to give the benefit of the doubt to the filmmakers here, and not say the film is missing a conventional story because the Europeans are incapable of telling one...) There are errors in POV, in that the excuse for the telling finds some structure in the character of Hitler's young female secretary. But the movie swings in and out of her witnessing the events, such that she is really just a fixation in what is more an omniscient point of view. Another problem in the film might be that there really isn't any thing new in its revelations about the historical details. We know everything we are going to see from the first moment of the movie. But even this doesn't take away from the ultimate fascination of the movie. So, in the end, what works wins. And Downfall works.

The movie is very disturbing because of all the death in it. It isn't anywhere as graphic as most war movies, although there are several starkly matter-of-fact shots of people without arms and legs and with brains splattered around. Most of the deaths we see are suicides, of course, as Hitler and his followers make the final choices of demi-gods. The most disturbing sequence is the clinical, weirdly loving sequence of Magda Goebbels, drugging and poisoning her five children. Her actions are so, so dark, that they are the only ones the film really tries to offer some kind of "why?" The film suggests that she was an ideological fanatic. But this reasoning feels unsatisfying, mainly because the actress playing Magda brings another quality to the fore. The quality is a commitment to evil, of course.

The morning after the movie, I can't stop thinking about power: What makes someone powerful among his or her fellow human beings? Why do some people have such a strong sense of history, and others spend their whole lives living for Friday night? Why is it so strong in us to worship someone, that if we do not embrace the Good God, we will make ourselves a bad one? What qualities in a leader incite others to turn over their responsibility for their own lives and choices? Why is it that the gifts that make someone charismatic, also ruin their ability to effectively use their power?

I'm also thinking of the sufering of the German people, which is a main focus of the film. The movie notes several times that they brought it on themselves, but then challenges us to judge them, because they are just peopple too caught up in the wave of history. The film features a lot of children fighting for Hitler. What did they know? But then, the film subverts this question by placing what is arguably an over-the-top docuemtary interview with Hitler's secretary in her elderly years. She ends with the question, "Was youth any excuse for not knowing?"

All good questions, and I honor the project that makes me brood over them. Such an interesting film.

Two thumbs up for Downfall.

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